The Possible World: A Novel

The Possible World: A Novel

by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz


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“A brilliantly written, moving story” (The Washington Book Review) about the converging lives of a young boy who witnesses a brutal murder, the doctor who tends to him, and an old woman guarding her long-buried past.

It seems like just another night shift for Lucy, an overworked ER physician in Providence, Rhode Island, until six-year-old Ben is brought in as the sole survivor from a crime scene. He’s traumatized and wordless; everything he knows has been taken from him in an afternoon. It’s not clear what he saw or what he remembers.

Lucy, who’s grappling with the demise of her marriage, feels a profound, unexpected connection to the little boy. She wants to help him...but will recovering his memory heal him or damage him further?

Across town, Clare will soon be turning one hundred years old. She has long believed that the secrets she’s been keeping don’t matter to anyone anymore, but a surprising encounter makes her realize that the time has come to tell her story.

As Ben, Lucy, and Clare struggle to confront the events that shattered their lives, something stronger than fate is working to bring them together.

“Schwarz blends a clear-eyed acceptance of life’s pain and cruelties with a hopeful message about the enduring power of love in this rich and memorable novel” (Publishers Weekly). The Possible World spans nearly a century—from the Great Depression through the Vietnam War era and into the present—and “in beautifully crafted prose” (Booklist) captures the complicated ways our pasts shape our identities, and how timeless bonds can triumph over grief. “A bittersweet story full of imagination and nostalgia, loss and redemption...The Possible World will seize readers from the first scene and hold tight until its satisfying conclusion” (Kirkus Reviews).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501166143
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 06/26/2018
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 317,114
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, an emergency-medicine doctor, published her first novel Near Canaan while in medical school. Her most recent novel is The Possible World, and she currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she is at work on her next book.

Read an Excerpt

The Possible World

  • AFTER THEY KILL ME, THERE is nothing.

    Not exactly nothing. There is a kind of blissful lapping quiet like the unmoored state between sleep and beginning to dream. And then after a long time, or after no time at all, the quiet is broken by bits of color, like bright crockery splinters bobbing on a dark current.

    A blond woman holds a blue towel wide—for me? Behind her are two small windows, hazy with steam. I am being given a bath. The woman is no one I recognize, and yet I do.

    Now a puppy, fuzzed and golden, pushes the warm leather of his snout into my hand before turning to follow some invisible taunting trace across the grass. A shock of delight goes through me; it’s the first time I am seeing a puppy. But how can that be? I had a dog named Bluestone, black as wet paint, who ran away when I was nine.

    The world chatters with echo, tastes meltingly familiar yet new on my tongue, voices like remembered song warbled through water. A snow-collared tree in the yard is ghosted by another, its trunk buried up to its fork in white, branches making a stark lace against a different sky.

    It’s all like a sweet dream I didn’t expect.

    I don’t perceive the before running out of everything until it is nearly done. Leaving only the solid now and an impression, like a tang of distant fragrance being borne away by a determined wind, that there is—or there once was—something more.

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Possible World includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. The Possible World traces the converging lives of Lucy, Ben, and Clare. Though they are from different walks of life and belong to different generations, what do they have in common? Of the three, whom did you relate to the most?

    2. The friendship between Clare and Gloria, Oak Haven’s newest resident, takes some time to blossom. According to Gloria, what she and Clare have in common is a love of reading and possession of most of their marbles. But what other qualities or motives draw the two women together?

    3. Why did Clare choose to name herself after St. Clare of Assisi, “the saint who had lived in poverty with God” (p. 185)? Do you agree with Prior Washburn that it is a fitting name, given her circumstances at the time? Does it continue to be a good fit later in her life?

    4. Lucy’s life revolves around her job as an emergency room physician. Why do you think she’s so tied to a career that can “swing from a beautiful satisfaction . . . . to a dismal failure” all in one day? How does the aphorism she repeats, that no matter how much you love medicine, it will not love you back, inform her attitude toward work? Do you think the concept applies to other jobs and careers?

    5. What draws Clare to Leo after the apple incident and his next visit to Roscommon? Do you think she feels a particular kinship with him or is her sudden longing for him to return a sign of her loneliness?

    6. The novel opens with a brutal homicide and yet the search for the murderer is not the focus of the story. Did that surprise you?

    7. What do you make of Lucy’s concerted attempts to be “nicer” to Joe? Do you have relationships that require this level of self-regulation? Why do you think Joe “couldn’t do this anymore” despite Lucy’s efforts?

    8. What do you imagine Ben is asking Lucy in the final pages of the novel when she answers “so much”? Do you foresee a happy future for them?

    9. Revisit the novel’s prologue. Now that you know what becomes of Ben, Lucy, and Clare, can you tell from whose perspective the prologue is written?

    10. Do you think Ben is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as one doctor diagnosed, or has Leo been reincarnated as Ben? Are there other possibilities? What do you think Liese O’Halloran Schwarz wants her readers to think?

    11. On page 145, Clare muses, “We leave shadows of ourselves in the places where we change. . . . They won’t die until I do. Or maybe they never will. Maybe the places they inhabit are their own, in a timeless void sealed away from me and from each other, where they go on forever.” Do you think Clare’s shadows die when she does? What other shadow-selves inhabit the pages of the novel?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Many families have been touched in some way by adoption and foster care. Is adoption or foster care in your family history? If so, how did that affect your reading of Leo and Ben’s journey and of their influence on the lives of Clare and Lucy?

    2. The hurricane of 1938 changed Clare’s life and also the history of New England forever. Research the hurricane’s effects on Providence and share your findings with the group.

    Customer Reviews

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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    The Possible World: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
    NanceeMarchinowski 5 months ago
    The lives of 3 very different people are intertwined in this beautifully written, poignant novel. I was swept into this story quickly, and I found myself wanting to read more and more as the stories of Leo, Clare and Lucy developed. Likable characters, a fast paced, unpredictable plot, and eloquent writing make this a very satisfying read. I look forward to more from this talented author!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Wow, great writing skills, ridiculous ending. I eagerly read this novel anticipating a surprising and satisfactory ending. This ending was a bad as the "oh, it was only a dream" explanation. Seriously, if you are satisfied with this ridiculous premise, then O.K., I guess you'll like it. But if you don't believe in reincarnation, you're gonna hate the ending of this book. What a cop out.
    nhr3bookcrazyNR More than 1 year ago
    Very orignal and beautifully written. I cannot give the book 5 stars because I was rather disappointed that the end sort of ... just stopped. Also, I personally found some of Lucy's ER scenes while very detailed were extraneous. But I loved the idea of the three separate story lines going throughout the book, and the entire idea of the novel. And, as I said, it was so well written. I particularly liked the small but insighful character of Freddy.
    miss_mesmerized More than 1 year ago
    Being invited to a birthday party isn‘t something that comes easy for Ben. Too many things can happen, all is so unpredictable with other boys, but his mother can convince him to go nevertheless. And then, the most unexpected happens: a murderer comes to the party and kills the two mothers in the house as well as all of the kids, except for Ben. In hospital, Lucy can only determine that he hasn’t been hurt physically, but there seems to be a kind of trauma since Ben wants to be called Leo and remembers life with a certain Clare. At an elderly home somewhere in town, Clare is fighting again against having to socialise. Her life alone in a recluse hut and later with her foster child Leo has simply been perfect. How come Ben remembers being Clare’s son Leo? Liese O‘Halloran Schwarz‘ novel is one of the rare books that you just open and then get completely lost in. I read it in just one sitting because I simply did not want to get away from her characters. It is bittersweet, often melancholic, but you see the good heart the characters have and you are convinced that there must be something good coming from them. It is a perfect feel-good book, even though it tells harsh reality in an emergency room and the story of a child given away by his mother. I liked the alternate narration of the three protagonists, even though it did not completely make sense at the beginning, you slowly manage to put together the puzzle pieces that form a new and complete picture. All three are very sensitive characters, misunderstood by the people around them and therefore lonely. I guess these kind of people recognize each other what helps them to find each other. What also links them is the fact that they are highly intelligent and question the world: why do the things have to be the way they are and why don’t people change something about it? A beautifully written story about non-mainstream characters who can easily be overlooked.
    readers_retreat More than 1 year ago
    I rarely request titles from the "General/Adult Fiction" category on NetGalley but when I do I usually find I have an enoyable time exploring a different genre to my usuals. While there were some plus points to the book there were also quite significant shortfalls. Okay, Let's begin with the good points. The writing is pretty perfect and Schwarz injects the story with some unique and special ideas adding to its originality. The characters were authentic and realistic which was absolutely necessary for the type of story this is. The multiple viewpoints offer each characters perspective on the situation which I always apprecate. The narrative is slow to begin with while building up the various layers and then picks up to a steady canter for the rest of the way. I had no idea this was about reincarnation but I thought that it was a stroke of genius on the author's part. So, to the negatives. You've heard of those books that people say don't actually have a story to them? Well, this is one of those. Sometimes I enjoy them, other times I don't. This one? Not so much. It never seemed to go anywhere for me. It has so many positive aspects that I just wish there had been an actual plot of some sort. I must mention the cover art - extremely beautiful with bold and bright colours, gorgeous! This is basically a book about the intricacies of human nature and the connections we have with one another even if we don't realise it. I can see I am in the minority with these views and I do feel that most readers would get along just fine with this story. There are certainly a lot more advantages to disadvantages in terms of deciding whether to give this a go. It just wasn't for me. I would try another title if Liese O'Halloran Schwarz published one in the future as I do feel she has a lot of the ingredients to be a bestseller. Unfortunately, there was a little something missing for me in "The Possible World." Many thanks to Hutchinson for an ARC. I was not required to post a review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
    Kari_M More than 1 year ago
    A beautifully written story featuring three separate narrators whose independent stories create a unified and satisfying whole. The characters are complex and the separate threads are distinct and easy to follow. Schwarz does not flinch from the harsh and difficult moments, yet delivers uplifting and heartwarming moments along with the sadness. Compassionate yet never saccharine, moving and heartbreaking, yet ultimately positive and uplifting, The Possible World is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
    SheTreadsSoftly More than 1 year ago
    The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz is a highly recommended emotional novel that deals with loss and the bonds between people. In Providence, Rhode Island, a six-year-old boy, Ben, witnesses the aftermath of a brutal multiple murder, including that of his mother, while at a birthday party. When found alive and uninjured in the carnage, Ben insists on being called Leo, but otherwise remembers nothing. He is traumatized and almost mute. The police are hoping he can remember something about the crime, but for now he is sent to the pediatric psych unit. Dr. Lucy Cole is an emergency room doctor who checked Ben over when he came in and later realizes that he is the son of a colleague who was murdered. She is perpetually overworked and dealing with turmoil in her personal life. Lucy finds herself thinking of Ben and continues to visit him. Clare is an elderly woman living in a nursing home. She is lucid and doing well, but she is about to turn one-hundred-years-old. Clare has carried her life story and it's many secrets for a long time, but may finally feel like it is time to tell her story to a new resident. The Possible World is well written and the characters are fully developed and complicated. The narrative rotates between the main three characters, Ben, Lucy, and Clare, and later a fourth, a young boy from Clare's past named Leo. The thoughts, emotions, and the lives of these people are explored and revealed, culminating in a reunion of sorts. It is a very compelling novel and will hold your attention throughout. I had two qualms with the novel. The first is the myriad of ER details Lucy shares. This make sense, she is an ER Dr. as is the author Liese O'Halloran Schwarz, but I wasn't reading this as a medical novel and soon grew a bit weary of all the ER action. Readers are also required to believe/accept the idea that reincarnation is real and that Ben used to be a boy named Leo. It felt too contrived for me to totally accept this plot pretense and the final scene. However, the quality of the writing is never in dispute. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.
    LlamaJen More than 1 year ago
    I absolutely LOVED this book!!!! The cover of the book caught my eye and the story ended being amazing. It was beautifully written. This is one of those books that I find myself randomly thinking about, especially while driving home from work. The characters and their story just stuck with me. I loved everything about it- the story, characters and writing style. The characters just all came together, they ended up being connected even though Ben, Lucy and Clare didn't initially know each other. Lucy is an ER doctor. She meets Ben when when he is brought into the ER covered in blood. He was the lone survivor of a horrific birthday party massacre. He tells the doctors his name is Leo and wants to find Clare. Under hypnosis, Ben tells Leo's story. Clare is living in a nursing home and is believed to be 100 years old. She ends up making friends with another resident, Gloria. She eventually tells Gloria her story. I may have cried a few times, definitely at the end. I fell in love with the characters especially Clare. Her story was heartbreaking. I liked how it alternated between Clare, Ben/Leo and Lucy. I feel like I got to know the characters. Even when the book ended I wanted to keep reading about their lives. Leo's mom was unbelievable. She didn't seem to have any emotion when she received the telegram, unlike Clare. Clare loved and took care of Leo just like Lucy will for Ben. I definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading more by the author. It was one of my favorite books that I read this year!!!
    lauriesophee More than 1 year ago
    This is definitely an exceptional novel. It is based on three main characters, a young boy who has witnessed a horrible tragedy and is the sole survivor, an elderly woman named Clara, who is 100. She is living in a nursing home with amazing memories, and an emergency room resident, Lucy, who is attempting to put the plot together, both in her own life and that of the young boy whose name is Ben, but wants to be Leo, and why? Reincarnation? I would believe it. How is it that Clara is looking for Leo and Ben aka Leo is looking for Clara, when they are so many years apart? A beautifully written descriptive novel, that will have you wondering about life, now and in the past.